Win Bassett caught Father Tony Jarvis just as he was leaving his office at the Yale Divinity School last April. Jarvis was in a hurry, and Bassett asked for a second of his time. They went inside and sat down. After years of working in law, Bassett had been accepted into the Yale Divinity School, and he was visiting for the admitted students’ weekend. But he still didn’t think he could enroll. He was terrified of starting over, of leaving everything behind in North Carolina, the only place he had ever called home.
“Bassett, that’s why you have to come here,” Bassett remembers Father Jarvis telling him. “It’s good that you’re afraid of it. Every major step in my life, I have been deathly afraid to do what I was about to do.”
Bassett is now in his second year at Yale Divinity School (YDS), getting his Masters of Arts in Religion, with a concentration in literature. But he is also a Profit. Not a “prophet”—Bassett is a member of the Former Profits, a social organization at the divinity school that brings together students who had previously pursued other careers. Members range from ex-bankers to ex-teachers to ex-photographers. Some used to own dance studios. Others used to work on Wall Street. Many members are commuters, some from as far as Boston. They have left behind often-lucrative careers for late-life study of theology, and Former Profits eases the transition.
Many Profits feel like they are giving up everything familiar for something uncertain. The participants’ desires to help each other through the potentially difficult transition serve as the foundation for Former Profits. Though they come from diverse backgrounds, together they can admit to their doubts about whether they have made the right choice in coming to divinity school.
The group recently had it first meeting of the year, a pizza lunch, in the common room of the Divinity School. Over lunch, the new students got to know returning members. At the next meeting, a guest speaker will talk about what it’s like to adjust to a new career path, long after they thought they had chosen one for life.
Bassett’s story is similar to those of other Profits: He moved from one kind of job to another in search of a concrete way to be of service. As an undergraduate, Bassett studied electrical engineering at North Carolina State University, but halfway through, he realized that he had no interest in becoming an engineer. He then decided to go to law school to become a patent attorney, which requires degrees in both engineering and law. He worked for eight months as a low level associate in a large international patent law firm in North Carolina before leaving, dissatisfied with the experience.
“I was tucked in an office writing memos that clients would likely never see. I wasn’t getting a lot of human interaction,” he said.
He left the job to work as an Assistant District Attorney in Raleigh, North Carolina. He wanted to become a law professor, and he thought the job would help him get there. But once again, he found himself dissatisfied.
“I experienced a lot of moral distress, particularly with young kids and low level drug crime,” Bassett said. “I found myself counseling and even pastoring these kids, trying to keep them out of jail instead of putting them in.”
Looking for alternative ways to serve children, Bassett discovered Yale’s Education Leadership and Ministry Program, founded by Father Jarvis. This certificate program, which supplements Bassett’s MAR degree, prepares students to pursue vocations as chaplains, administrators, teachers, and coaches in independent schools. Bassett hopes to work in an independent primary school so that he can help kids with education instead of punishing them in the justice system.
He studies with a clear focus on where he is headed, a quality that seems to separate profits from many of the students who arrived at YDS right out of college. “When I was in law school, the people who had been out in the real world a couple years always treated their schooling more seriously, and I really envied them,” Bassett said. “And now I see exactly what that looks like.”
Many of the Former Profits are no strangers to the world of religion, even if a life of ministry may not have crossed their minds before. Cheryl Bundy, a fourth year part-time student pursuing a Masters of Arts in Religion, worked on Wall Street for twelve years and as a fundraiser in the non-profit world for another twelve. After September 11, she worked at St. James Episcopal Church in New York City doing education and outreach. In 2009, she moved to Connecticut with her family and couldn’t find a job that interested her.
“I was forty-four, and I finally asked myself, ‘What do you really want to do? What makes your heart tick?’” she said.
Partly because of how much she loved her work at St. James, she decided to study theology at YDS.
Some students have spent their entire lives in service to their faith before joining the Profits. Carlos Insignares is currently in his second year of studies to earn a Masters in Divinity, a three-year degree that prepares him for ordination and ministry. He has served in the ministry since age twelve, as a liturgical committee member, catechist, and confirmation teacher.
I asked Insignares why, despite having been so involved in ministry all his life, he had waited until the age of fifty to seek ordination. He responded that this was not his first time pursuing priesthood. In the fall of 1993, after receiving his bachelors in elementary education, he entered a Catholic seminary and took a job as a Catholic schoolteacher.
“I was in seminary, in the Roman Catholic seminary, and they found out I was gay. They asked me to leave, so I did—on a Saturday night, with no place to go. I was left alone and rejected.”
Unemployed, Insignares went back to his alma mater, St. Thomas University. He received his Master’s in Guidance and Counseling and taught for two years at a public school before taking a job as a guidance counselor.
No longer in the Catholic Church, he decided to find somewhere he could feel free, where he did not have to worry about his sexual orientation. This led him to an Episcopal church. Insignares considered himself too old to enter the priesthood, but his spiritual director told him it was never too late.
The Profits are entering a world where the steady paychecks, healthcare, and dental insurance they were used to are now luxuries they’d like to one day have again. The standard office workdays have been left behind.
“We have had wonderful jobs.” Insignares says. “We have given them up to be here.”
“It’s incredibly scary the whole way. I’m afraid of disappointing my parents, disappointing former mentors in the fields I left,” Bassett admits.
What keeps them together is the fact that they have looked elsewhere before coming here. No matter their past professions, they have stumbled upon similar challenges. As Insignares said, “We bring in a slew of experiences that can really only come with time.”
Even as he joins the other Former Profits for friendship and advice, his fear of uncertainty remains. Insignares and his classmates are looking into the unknown without much control over their futures. The faith that inspired them to turn to Divinity School, along with the community created by the Former Profits, will have to guide them toward the light.
Arizona Greene is a freshman in Saybrook College.